RICHMOND — Esther Mahlangu is barely taller than the third-grade students who gathered around her for a photo op in front of her boldly colored geometric mural. Taking a break from painting, Mahlangu smiled and giggled with the students and admired the pencil drawings they made of her mural’s Ndebele design.
Still spry at 78, Mahlangu was working in her Ndebele garb — including metal rings around her neck, wrists and legs, beaded apron and beaded headbands in her close-cropped hair. Her old-school approach is part of her mission to keep her people’s customs alive. (Her one concession to comfort is her pair of black sneakers.)
“I want the children and everyone to preserve it and to learn it,” Mahlangu said through interpreter and assistant Grace Massango.
For Mahlangu, making new art is all about preserving the past.
A giant of South Africa’s contemporary art scene, the diminutive Mahlangu brought her cultural traditions and artistic magic to Richmond last month, where the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts commissioned her to paint two large works during a month-long public residency.
Mahlangu has built an international reputation for her boldly colored geometric patterns and intricate black and white borders, designs linked to the traditional beadwork that adorns Ndebele clothing and jewelry.
Mahlangu worked every day for most of September on the paintings, which are her only major museum commission in North America. With assistance from granddaughter Marriam Mahlangu, 34, she painted without sketches or rulers, or even a preset vision of what the painting will be.
“My plan is here,” she said, touching her paint-splotched index finger to her temple.
The museum commissioned the murals to frame the entrance of the wing that holds its African Art collection. Ndebele women paint these designs on the exteriors of their home, so hanging them in Evans Court, at the entrance to its collection, is a fitting nod to Ndebele heritage.
“It becomes a gateway for the collection, a visual magnet,” said Richard Woodward, senior associate director and curator of African Art.
Woodward has been expanding the museum’s collection of South African and contemporary art and felt a work from Mahlangu would be a landmark acquisition. The commission also complements two recent acquisitions, murals from Sol LeWitt and Virginia artist Ryan McGinness.
Mahlangu catapulted onto the international art scene 1989, when she was included in an influential group exhibition in Paris. Two years later, she was commissioned by BMW to paint an Art Car, becoming the only female and non-Western artist to join ranks that included Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Alexander Calder.
“She believes profoundly in the Ndebele identity she is promoting,” Woodward said.
Her striking designs are drawn from the patterns found in the clothing that identify Ndebele women as single, betrothed or married. Although originally depicted in earth tones, the tradition has embraced vibrant hues of late, replacing ochre and moss with hot pink and electric blue.
Young Ndebele girls are taught to paint so when they marry they can decorate the exteriors of their homes in patterns that trace their ancestry and heritage.
Mahlangu learned from her mother and grandmother, and she is passing her knowledge to her 11 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
“We teach the young girls to paint for when they get married,” she said in her native isiNdebele, the language Massango translates into English. “If a girl goes to her in-laws and can’t paint properly, they will say she wasn’t taught well.”
On the morning of Day 17 of the 28-day project, she rested regularly as she applied green acrylic paint with a brush fashioned from chicken feathers.
“You do get tired, yes,” Mahlangu said in English.
Working next to her, Marriam Mahlangu has removed the brass-colored rings married women wear stacked around their necks, arms and legs. Massango says she wears them only for special occasions.
Esther Mahlangu’s rings are permanent, though Massango said even if they did come off, the artist probably wouldn’t remove them.
But she seemed energized by the students from Richmond Prep, who squeezed into a semicircle for their teacher’s picture. After they left, she sat in her chair, smiling.
“I’m happy,” she said in accented English as her right hand patted her heart. “I don’t want my culture to die.”
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. For additional information, call 804-340-1400 or visit www.vmfa.museum.